The Montgomery Zoo has gone through many incarnations since its establishment in 1935 as the Oak Park Zoo. It began as a small menagerie of animals and evolved into a modern facility devoted to animal conservation and public education. With exhibits that focus on five continents, the Montgomery Zoo continues to expand its exhibits and educational programming. Established in the 1880s on 40 acres, Oak Park was the social and recreational center Montgomery. In 1935, the federal Works Progress Administration constructed facilities in the park for housing exotic animals and renamed the site the Oak Park Zoo. The Montgomery City Council appointed a superintendent and appropriated a budget of $1,200 a year. The original collection of animals included monkeys, bears, alligators, deer, and a pair of lions. In 1956, U.S. Army Signal Corps gave the Oak Park Zoo two retired carrier pigeons, Julius Caesar and Flipper, that had been used to transmit information during World War II. The original park also featured two small train rides, a merry-go-around, and a ferris wheel.
Like all public facilities in Montgomery, the zoo was strictly segregated. In the mid-1950s, pressure mounted on the zoo to provide equal access to its facilities for the city's black citizens. In September 1958, a group of African Americans filed a lawsuit to desegregate the public parks. The Federal Court in Montgomery ruled that the city's segregated facilities were unconstitutional the following year. In response, the city government closed all public parks and swimming pools rather than integrate them. Oak Park Zoo was closed on December 31, 1959, and most of the animals were sold, but one of the lions went to the Birmingham Zoo.
By the mid-1960s, Montgomery revisited the concept of a public zoo and park. In 1967, the Montgomery City Council approved plans for a 34-acre public park in north Montgomery that included space for an office and concession facility, a red barn housing a small petting zoo containing domestic animals, a flight cage, and an island monkey habitat. The new facility, named the Montgomery Children's Zoo, was completed in the spring of 1971. By the following year, the zoo portion of the park had been renamed the Montgomery Zoo and had expanded to a six-acre facility housing some 84 species acquired mostly as gifts from zoos and individuals. The collections were a menagerie, with no organizing element or theme. As was typical for the times, large chain-link paddocks housed hoof stock such as antelopes and deer; grottos, chain-link cages, and wire cages held large carnivores, primates, and birds; and a group of chimpanzees lived in a heavy barred exhibit. Other birds were exhibited in a waterfowl pool and a walk-through flight cage. The zoo had a limited local appeal and attracted about 100,000 visitors annually, and fundraising was sporadic and weak. In 1975, a non-profit organization called the Dixie Zoological Society was established to support the animals and work with visitors. Later renamed the Montgomery Area Zoological Society, the group began a fundraising campaign for expansion of the zoo.
In 1984, with funding from a private donor, zoo officials developed a master plan that called for the expansion of the zoo to 40 acres and the creation of a geography-based theme. Four years later, the zoo gained accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and refocused its public efforts toward education and conservation. In 1989, the mayor and city council of Montgomery initiated a program to expand, upgrade, and modernize the Montgomery Zoo to bring it more in line with the quality of zoos across the country. In an unprecedented public-private partnership, the city entered into an agreement with the Zoological Society to raise $10 million over five years for a new zoo. City officials promoted and passed a $5 million general-revenue bond in 1989, and the society pledged to raise $5 million.
A new zoo director was recruited and hired in October 1990 to oversee construction of the new zoo and reorganize and professionalize the organization. In 1991, the city of Montgomery elevated the zoo to department status, removing it from the authority of the Parks and Recreation Department. The zoo director is a city department head and reports directly to the mayor. As a separate department, the new zoo became an enterprise fund, operating as a revenue center and keeping all of its revenues for operations and capital improvements.
Construction on the new zoo began in October 1990, based on a revised master plan and under the auspices of a professional zoo design team. The new 40-acre zoo opened to the public in September 1991. Collections represent animals from five continents in largely barrier-free habitats and exhibits that provide visitors with educational and interpretive opportunities. The zoo was inspected and reaccredited in 1992.
New exhibit construction and growth has been substantial since the initial new zoo was developed in 1990. The park has undergone
more than $6 million in construction and development. The acreage has increased by nearly 700 percent, the collections have
doubled in size, and 55 new jobs have been added. The Montgomery Zoo was reaccredited in 2003, and since then it has added
the 27,000-square-foot Mann Museum, which features exhibits on wildlife and natural history, an elephant habitat, an Old World
aviary, and a North American river otter habitat. Current annual attendance ranges between 230,000 and 250,000. The Montgomery Zoo earns approximately 40 percent of its operating budget annually and is supported by the city of Montgomery and the Montgomery
Area Zoological Society for the remainder of its operating and capital needs.
Trevino, Heather S., and Linda E. Pastorello. Oak Park Zoo and Montgomery Zoo. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.
Published November 18, 2008
Last updated August 5, 2010